50 Best Foreign Thrillers of All Time

50 Best Foreign Thrillers of All Time

June 11, 2024

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In this list, no passports are required for a whirlwind tour of heart-pounding suspense. From cat-and-mouse games in labyrinthine cities to espionage puzzles written in different languages, we’ve collected the best foreign-language thrillers of all time and indicated, for your convenience, where you can watch them online. These films will keep you on the edge of your seat with twist after twist, all while rousing the curious explorer in you. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned thrill seeker or just dipping your toes into the enigmatic waters of suspense: these films know no borders, and neither should you. So, fasten your seatbelts as we travel the globe with our top picks.

1. Wild Tales (2014)

best

9.9

Country

Argentina, France, Spain

Director

Damián Szifron

Actors

Abián Vainstein, Alan Daicz, Andrea Garrote, César Bordón

Moods

Dark, Discussion-sparking, Funny

With ‘Wild tales’, writer-director Damían Szifrón explores exactly how thin the proverbial veneer is on the passions of the human heart. Or rather he gleefully rips it off. Visually dazzling and laced with social critique, violent revenge is the theme joining the six vignettes together. Each one starts off in a relatable everyday situation, including an airplane, a wedding, and a coffee shop, which quickly propels into complete savagery of Roald Dahlian proportions.

Like the famous author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Szifrón writes great satirical characters, which he relishes in hurting and throwing in the ditch. And much like the rage of its protagonists, featuring Ricardo Darín as a family man articulating his by way of explosives, this movie does not know peaks and valleys. It’s a dark comedy thrill ride that will have you gasping for air!

2. Monster (2023)

best

9.4

Country

Japan

Director

Hirokazu Kore-eda

Actors

Akihiro Kakuta, Ayu Kitaura, Daisuke Kuroda, Eita Nagayama

Moods

Character-driven, Dramatic, Emotional

Monster is a deceptively simple story about growing up and the many misunderstandings that come with it. It’s told through different points of view, a technique that could easily feel gimmicky in the hands of a lesser director. But with director Hirokazu Kore-eda at the helm, it feels natural and inevitable, as if there was no other way to tell this specific story. It’s a masterful mystery, but Monster is less about suspense and answering the whodunnit question than it is about navigating the murky waters of truth and real life. As corny as it sounds, watching Monster is an experience unto itself: you’ll find yourself believing something one moment and dismantling it the next, learning and unlearning in a span of two hours. But as with past Kore-eda films, it’s the story’s heartwarming sensitivity that trumps everything. You’ll likely come for the mystery but stay for its heart.

3. The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

best

9.2

Country

Argentina, Spain

Director

Juan J. Campanella, Juan Jose Campanella

Actors

Alejandro Abelenda, Barbara Palladino, Carla Quevedo, David Di Nápoli

Moods

Long, Romantic, Slow

A slow-burning Argentinian thriller about a retired legal counselor and the one case he investigated that just would not die, The Secret in Their Eyes is a taut and sharp mystery. As layers of mystery unfold, the story draws the viewer in and becomes entangled with the deteriorating political situation in Argentina. Notably, the film features a single-take 5 minute shot – a fantastic technical achievement and a testament to the directorial vision and skill.

4. The Handmaiden (2016)

best

9.2

Country

Korea, South Korea

Director

Chan-wook Park, Park Chan-wook

Actors

Bae Il-hyuck, Cho Jin-woong, Choi Byung-mo, Choi Jong-ryul

Moods

Dramatic, Thrilling, Weird

The 2016 outing of South-Korean auteur director Park Chan-wook (maker of Oldboy and Stoker) once again shifts attention to the dark side of what makes us human: betrayal, violence, and transgression. Based on the 2002 novel Fingersmith by British author Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden revolves around the love of two women and the greedy men around them. Park shifts the novel’s plot from Victorian London to 1930s Korea, where an orphaned pickpocket is used by a con man to defraud an old Japanese woman. Routinely called a masterpiece with comparisons made to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, this is a stylish and meticulous psychological thriller that packs enough erotic tension to put a crack in your screen. If you love cinema, you can’t miss this movie. You might even have to watch it twice.

5. Cure (1997)

best

9.2

Country

Japan

Director

Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Actors

Akira Otaka, Anna Nakagawa, Denden, Hajime Tanimoto

Moods

Challenging, Dark, Gripping

Cure is about a mad society, where both cure and sickness might be one and the same. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa subverts the police procedural into an interrogation without definite answers, an abstract study on the evil that resides and is suppressed in every person’s heart. Unlike most horror films, Cure’s scares are left in plain sight, hypnotically mesmerizing as they are gruesome, with a sense of mundanity associated with other Japanese masters like Ozu or Kore-eda. “At the time it just seemed the right thing to do,” a man answers when asked why he killed his wife, and it is this contradictorily calm, nonchalant demeanor that creates a feeling of unease in the film’s horror aesthetic.

6. The Salesman (2016)

best

9.1

Country

France, Iran

Director

Asghar Farhadi

Actors

Babak Karimi, Ehteram Boroumand, Emad Emami, Erfan Barzin

Moods

Dramatic, Thought-provoking, Thrilling

Echoing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesmen, Oscar-winning writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, About Elly) tells the story of a loving middle-class couple who live in Tehran, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who are forced to move out of their apartment. After arriving at their new place, violence erupts, upending their life and straining their previously happy relationship. Farhadi does what he does best here, delivering simmering tension, complex realism, and unaltered emotion. Originally titled Forushande, every scene of The Salesman is a privileged look for Western viewers into Iran’s collective consciousness. And even with all that aside, the film still stands out as an extraordinary drama with a tense plot and outstanding performances across the board. Another incredible addition to Farhadi’s first-class filmography.

7. Shoplifters (2018)

best

9.1

Country

Japan

Director

Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hirokazu Koreeda

Actors

Aju Makita, Akira Emoto, Chizuru Ikewaki, Hajime Inoue

Moods

Heart-warming, Smart, Sunday

The title of this 2018 Palme D’or winner is not to be taken metaphorically: Shoplifters is about a marginalized family of day workers, crooks, and small-time outlaws, who live on the fringes of Japanese society. Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) both have jobs but spruce up their low-wage income by committing petty crimes. One day in winter, Osamu takes in a bruised girl he finds outside in the cold and introduces her to the family in his ramshackle house. But when the second-youngest member of the family, Shota (Kairi Jyo), finds himself teaching her how to shoplift, he faces a moral dilemma that threatens to unravel the family’s fabric. If you were hitherto unfamiliar with the unique storytelling and social realism of Hirokazu Koreeda, we really recommend checking it out—as well as his other movies, namely, Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son, I Wish, and After the Storm. His 2018 outing features the last ever performance of Kirin Kiki, who plays the elderly matriarch and passed away that same year. Like many of Koreeda’s works, Shoplifters is an understated, beautiful, and mysterious study of the effects of poverty and trauma and a delicate portrait of a family in Japan’s urban underbelly.

8. OldBoy (2003)

best

9.0

Country

Korea, South Korea

Director

Chan-wook Park, Park Chan-wook

Actors

Byeong-ok Kim, Choi Min-sik, Dae-han Ji, Dae-yeon Lee

From Korean director Park Chan-wook, who also brought you the far quieter The Handmaiden, comes a movie that is positively terrifying. Its premise alone is enough for any sentient human being to shudder. On his daughter’s birthday, the good-for-nothing Oh Dae-su (played by Choic Min-sik) gets drunk and is arrested by the police. A friend eventually bails him out and, while he is making a phone call, Oh Dae-su disappears. Not knowing why, he is held in the same room for 15 years for no apparent reason. Until, one day, he is released. That’s all that can be revealed about this winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004 without giving away too much. All we can add here is the way we recommend Oldboy to people admitting to not having seen it yet: “Watch Oldboy. You’re welcome. We’re sorry.” A crazy, twisted film that goes to extremes. A cult classic and a statement.

9. The Guilty (2018)

best

9.0

Country

Denmark

Director

Gustav Möller

Actors

Alexander Clement, Anders Brink Madsen, Camilla Lau, Gustav Möller

Moods

Intense, Mind-blowing, Suspenseful

Before you press play on this movie, we highly recommend you take a few very deep breaths. This 2018 thriller is wound so tight, you will need the extra oxygen to get through it without fainting. In his directorial debut, Swedish-danish filmmaker Gustav Möller uses very little in terms of resources to create this breath-taking atmosphere. While The Guilty feels like it was made on a $100 million budget, all it physically brings to the table is one man in a dark room. It plays with our imagination instead of blinding it with special effects. Similarly, the plot is also short and sweet: a police officer is temporarily sent to do emergency dispatch, when he receives a call that turns an ordinary shift into a hell ride. This is all we are going to give away before you’ve completed your breathing exercises. The movie’s minimalist approach is held together by great acting from Jakob Cedergre, a screenplay to match, and incredible sound design. A real white-knuckle ride.

10. No Bears (2022)

best

9.0

Country

Iran

Director

Jafar Panahi

Actors

Jafar Panahi, Mina Kavani, Narges Delaram, Naser Hashemi

Moods

Gripping, Mind-blowing, Original

The Iranian director Jafar Panahi has faced constant persecution from his country’s government for over a decade, for his career of sharply political films speaking truth to power. In fact, No Bears—which was shot in secret, in defiance of the government banning him from filmmaking for 20 years—had its initial festival run in 2022 while Panahi was in prison. Evidence of Panahi’s drive to keep making his movies, no matter what, are clear in this film’s limited resources and occasionally inconsistent video quality. But even those obstacles can’t get in the way of his vaulting ambition.

No Bears operates on several different layers that all express Panahi’s growing frustration with—but also his commitment to—making art that only ever seems to put himself and other people in harm’s way. At its base level, this is a suspenseful small-town thriller, as an exiled Jafar Panahi (playing himself) tries to evade suspicion from the villagers around him. At the same time, Jafar is struggling to direct a film remotely, which creates a strain on his production crew. On top of that, the characters in his film undergo their own drama, seeking asylum out of Turkey. All of this is edited together under a stirring screenplay written with heart, humor, and the hope that the institutions that try to scare us will never keep us in the dark forever.

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